Difficult as it is to comprehend Sanath Jayasuriya’s presence in the World Cup training squad of 30; you’d have to say his inclusion isn’t surprising either. He played no part in any of the country’s ODI campaigns this year and honestly, the 41-year-old ought not to be even in a list of 50 possible candidates for places in the 15-member World Cup squad.
Excluding him, however, is rejecting a member of parliament and that hardly ever happens in old Lanka. The legend that he is, it’s sad that Jayasuriya would have had to virtually flash his MP badge to get into the players’ dressing room – the door which had been welcomingly left open to him for over a decade and half, all four World Cup events since 1996 included.
Whether the door will open a fifth time will, of course, be known in late January, but when form hadn’t been a factor in his inclusion in the 30, there’s no reason why that requirement might not be waived off again. So his selection into the final 15 shouldn’t surprise anybody – after all, it will be just one more of the many imponderables Sri Lankan politics frequently thrusts upon us; so why fret?
There’s even less reason to fret about Jayasuriya’s presence in the 30. His inclusion last week, after all, wasn’t half as shocking as his invitation some months ago to join the national squad (together with Chaminda Vaas). Of course, he had long spoken publicly of his ambition to play in the World Cup for a fifth time, an ambition that the Aravinda de Silva-led selection committee wasn’t prepared to accommodate unless supported by meaningful contributions.
As at December of last year, those contributions remained undelivered and the selectors’ patience thinned. He disappeared off the selectors’ radar and on top of that was struck-off the Cricket Board’s list of contracted players as well, which is the board’s way of saying: ‘thank you, but we can now do without you.’
That’s when the hand of politics moved: Despite a dismal run early in the 2010 IPL last March-April and the resultant exclusion from the Mumbai Indians playing-11 for much of its matches, surprisingly he was included in the country’s T-20 World Cup team last May, providing him what looked a final opportunity to force himself back into contention for the 50-over World Cup. But he could manage only a princely tally of 15 runs in six games and his career seemed done and dusted. He was excluded from the Triangular Series (with India and New Zealand) last August, the ODI series in Australia last month – both victorious – as well as from the squad for the recent five-match ODI series v. the West Indies, aborted by rain.
It is inconceivable that any other cricketer with a similarly dismal year-long record would find himself among the 30 top contenders for a place in the World Cup. But then not all are MPs like Jayasuriya. To be fair, though, it has to be said that not many other cricketers can claim the legendary status of Jayasuriya either – a status that might be in consort with the chief selectors’ plan to assemble a squad made up of experience and youth for the battle.
Jayasuriya has tons of experience, but his year-long absence from ODIs questions the wisdom of his inclusion. And not as if the final 15 is so rookie-laden to make his selection a compulsion. Muralitharan, like Jayasuriya, has four World Cup appearances; skipper Sangakkara and his deputy Jayawardena, two each – a collective reservoir of eight World Cup tournaments. Jayasuriya’s four no doubt will considerably enhance the squad’s experience, but equally, too many wise heads only go to increase the potential for trouble within the squad – i.e. a disharmony touched off by a clash of differing ideas.
Such differences of course are seldom aired in the open but, rather, in whispers, polluting the dressing room air with suspicion. This is not to infer that the cricketer-politician is a bad apple. But, that chief selector, de Silva, should even, in general terms, touch on the importance of unity within the squad – a given really – in his media briefing, Tuesday, it is justifiable to think that the danger of disunity does exist.
Said de Silva: “If there is any antagonism or issue in the team of someone being included, who is going to create any sort of problems within the team, that will be the main reason for leaving them out of the squad. That sort of thing will be very hard to tolerate especially during the World Cup because you need unity if you want to succeed. We can’t have any divisions within the team.”
There’s no way of saying if Jayasuriya’s inclusion would be an issue with other members of the team, though, it has to be said, the former skipper, apart from being very much a team-man, is, by nature, simple and modest, qualities far removed from that of divisive elements.
If it is possible to de-link Jayasuriya’s political life from his cricket – which unfortunately is too entwined to separate – his claims for a fifth World Cup appearance would be viewed less prejudicially. His recent form might not merit selection, but you don’t pass up without pausing to consider the advantages that might accrue from having one with 444 ODIs, 13,428 runs and 322 wickets under his belt. And given his extraordinary deeds in the World Cup of ’96 (when the sub continent last played host) to tempt a gamble on his inclusion deserves a second thought.
If he does win selection, not for the first time will it be perceived as a back door entry, i.e. through his powerful political connections. But to the man’s credit, he justified his enforced inclusion – in the English tour of 2006, in the Australian tour of 2006 and the 2008 Asia Cup, blasting centuries in all of those recalls. Clearly, his resolve to prove his critics wrong was too great to contain and he succeeded hugely in those comebacks. Greater will be his resolve to succeed in the World Cup and make for himself a gloriously memorable final hurrah.
The question is: In what role? All his historic deeds have been performed as opener, but that door is firmly shut on him by the established combination of Dilshan and Tharanga. Chief selector de Silva also speaks of a wish to include Tharanga Paranavitharna as third-choice opener. It also should be remembered that Mahela Jayawardene has successfully filled in as opener, which might well prompt selectors to rule out the inclusion of a third-choice opener, making Jayasuriya a non-starter for the role that once was his.
Sangakkara and Jayawardene, at number three and four, are Rocks of Gibraltar; number five in my book is the unflappable Thilan Samaraweera, for the reason that those before him, bar Tharanga, are batsmen of aggressive instincts, which at times thrusts the team into vulnerable situations. Samaraweera, at number five, brings stability. Angelo Mathews, personification of youth, is the top candidate for the all-rounder’s slot, at number six. The last batting slot, number seven, is pretty open with the two Chamaras, de Silva and Kapugedera in the race, though neither have performed with the consistency to be considered certainties.
It is here, as number seven, that the selectors might find an opening for Jayasuriya, not so much on the strength of his batting but as a spinner. On the slow, low and turning sub-continental tracks Jayasuriya can present quite a few problems to batsmen – an added virtue that neither of the Chamaras can boast of. But then, specialist spinners abound: Muralitharan, Randiv, Herath and Malinga Bandara as the available choices so that the addition of Jayasuriya is one too many, really.
Notwithstanding all that, should the old maestro yet find himself in the number seven slot, the perception that his selection is a political pay-off is difficult to disguise. But then, politicians have their way in old Lanka – so why fret? For old times sake, though, let’s hope the cheers of ’96 don’t turn to jeers next year – not just for the aged hero, but the country itself.